Stuart Ritchie

Rules of behaviour

Robert Sapolsky discusses the regions of the brain governing fear and self-control. But not all his research convinces

It’s the constant dilemma of the pop science author: how to write something flashy enough to grab readers, but solid enough that it won’t be embarrassing in a few years when the science has moved on. Full scientific rigour entails tedious jargon and even more tedious equations, and nobody wants that. But neither should the messy, uncertain world of scientific research be oversimplified. In his lengthy new book, Behave, the Stanford neuroscientist primatologist Robert Sapolsky walks this tightrope as he explains the biology of humanity’s ‘best and worst’ behaviours.

Behave is a crammed compendium of scientific findings, organised in an ingenious way. Beginning with a human behaviour — the pulling of a trigger, say: Sapolsky recounts the science of what happened in the trigger-puller’s brain seconds before, then hours before, then weeks and years before, continuing with what happened in their childhood, in the womb and so on, finishing up with no less than the evolution of behaviour, millennia ago. He then considers what the findings mean for the justice system, for war and peace and for free will.

As we navigate Sapolsky’s reverse chronology, we encounter discussions of which regions of the brain are involved in fear and self-control, which hormones relate to aggression, the context-dependency of genetic effects on behaviour and the evolution of co-operation. If this list seems familiar, it’s because all these topics have been covered before in more focused pop biology books — but Sapolsky does give an admirably complex, up-to-date summary, adding in newer areas such as the study of adolescence and epigenetics. In the end, clearly with that sought-after scientific rigour in mind, he draws a realistic-but-not-exactly-resounding conclusion about human behaviour: ‘it’s complicated.’ But is it complicated enough? Sapolsky is oddly capricious with his scepticism: at some points he is highly critical — the overhyped idea that the brain’s ‘mirror neurons’ are responsible for our ability to empathise receives a well-deserved kicking, for example — but at others he gives a free pass to some truly risible research.

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